Features: Self-Service Provisioning

Posted: 03/2002

Self-Service Provisioning
Inviting Customers into Automated Order-to-Delivery Process Yields Savings for Pioneers

By Peter

It’s not quite so simple as pumping gas, but self-service has come to communications network services, and it’s yielding the same result: lower operating costs for the provider.

Over the past several years, facing a lack of satisfactory off-the-shelf products, several service providers quietly have built systems in house that allow end customers and channel partners to serve themselves.

These systems incorporate transaction-management applications that automate what had been paper-intensive and error-prone manual processes across the provider’s “back-end” operations support systems (OSSs), including order processing, network provisioning, service activation, billing and customer care, allowing those OSSs to “talk” with one another in a logical workflow. At the same time, the systems provide a World Wide Web-based “front-end” interface to customers.

As a result, providers including Capsule Communications Inc. and Talk America Inc. have begun to quantify substantial customer and revenue growth, as well as savings.

The same fate may be in store for other service providers that can purchase similar systems available off the shelf from software vendors, including DSET Corp. and its recent merger partner ISPsoft Inc, Netcracker Technology Inc. and its integration partners including Quallaby Corp., TeleGea Inc. and its integration partners including Aplion Networks Inc. and Telution Inc.

Whether in-house or off-the-shelf, the web-ordering and service-management portals are available to reseller channels and end users. Further, thanks to the automation and flow-through characteristics of these systems, sales and customer-support training have been simplified, services are being activated faster, and retail and wholesale customers are biting on the prospect of becoming more empowered to shape telecom and datacom service offerings to their unique needs.

Body Count

In September 1999, Capsule Communications, soon to become a wholly owned subsidiary of Covista Inc., was primarily a telecom wholesaler and an “all-paper” organization, says president and CEO David Hurwitz. Now 89 percent of Capsule’s orders are processed in electronic form, and 70 percent of those are from retail residential or small business customers.

Because the information entered in the initial order automatically is turned into an account, passed through verification and then shared with service activation, network management, credit and collections, billing and customer care, all of Capsule’s own OSSs are playing in unison from the same notes on the same page, enabling 55 percent of customer care to become electronic too.

“If it’s electronic, I have a consistent record of it, so customer service becomes nonemotional,” Hurwitz says. “It’s no longer these separate entities — the provider, the customer and the truth.”

Through the speed and consistency yielded by automation, he says, even as it has processed enough orders to grow from 35,000 end customers in October 2000 to 60,000 a year later — with a concomitant 50 percent monthly increase in provisioning tasks and 70 percent increase in customer service interactions — the company has cut its salary and administration costs by $1 million.

Talk America reports similar savings, cutting back-office staff by 27 percent even as it has grown from long-distance only to 275,000 bundled local/long-distance customers since 2000. Through a $40-million investment in an automated back-office architecture back then, it has reduced order-to-provisioning time “from five days to five minutes, and that translates to dollar savings of 30 percent,” says IT director Ghun Desai.

Although Talk America has placed less emphasis on Internet self-service, the important thing is that all customer accounts begin and end electronically, thanks to integration of the OSSs via web technologies, Desai says. He explains orders can be generated from the sales group, a reseller or agent, outbound marketing or the customer via the web.

At that instant, the system applies multiple ordering processes to the information — including credit scoring, third-party verification and feature comparisons with the customer’s previous incumbent carrier account — before forwarding the order to the provisioning OSS.

Sharing Information

Although Capsule Communications does not divulge what it has spent to build its integrated back office, information systems vice president Tom Ford has done it with a lean staff of three developers and not many more system managers on broadly affordable Microsoft Corp. Microsoft SQL database, ASP Server and Visual Basic application development software and Dell Computer Corp. PowerEdge hardware.

Longer-term plans call for porting the applications to Covista’s more sophisticated back office, which is grounded in more robust, large-scale IBM Corp. Informix databases which also will yield real-time rating and billing of services.

In either case, “I have old, client/server, back-end systems in place with features and functions we still use, but they couldn’t share information outside of our four walls,” Ford says. “Now the transaction occurs on the front end, it’s collected and then ported to the back end. If a change is made on the front or back end, it shows up on the other end.”

Thanks to the flexibility of “three-tier” web-hosting architectures, which couple web, application and database servers in functional groups, one application server may handle order transactions; another, automatic order status e-mails to customers; and another, automatic messaging to network provisioning systems. Capsule also has introduced online invoice and credit card payment services, and the system remains open to development of additional transaction processes.

That architecture, in tandem with conditional access firewalls, has enabled Ford’s team to create three tiers of front-end web servers: one superset site internal to Capsule, another “mass marketing” site for end customers and another for agent sites. Further, Capsule is encouraging its channel partners to brand and push the web interface to their own end customers.

Hurwitz says, “But our big differentiator is not just that we’re electronic, but the fact that we’re able to share information in real-time with all our partners.”

That sharing also pays off inside the provider’s four walls. Through component object-oriented software, Netcracker, TeleGea, Telution and other vendors are able to break end-to-end workflow steps into software modules for everything from customer acquisition, contract management, service ordering and circuit provisioning to customer support, billing and trouble-ticketing and other network operations.

“For our solution to improve order processing, it needs to talk with order management, network-inventory management,

provisioning and activation,” says Jason Amos, director of customer support for TeleGea’s Emporium Enterprise.

In the opposite direction, the Aplion’s Network Virtuoso multiservice-provisioning hardware and software more effectively can improve network provisioning by talking with Emporium. “Our point-click-deliver is for the service provider, relieving him of having to know about router tables or Layer 7 packet analysis and the like,” says Aplion CEO John Holobinko, who adds that one customer stands to reduce capital costs by 29 percent and operating costs by 49 percent, while its revenue increases by at least 25 percent. “TeleGea is extending that to enable customers to, within a couple minutes, design or reconfigure a complex service through a user-friendly screen and TeleGea’s hooks into the underlying OSS.”


Other vendors focused on linking order processes to other service and customer management systems downstream include Alopa Networks Inc., Axiom Systems Ltd., Connexn Technologies, NightFire Software Inc., Open Telecommunications North America Inc., Orchestream Ltd., Vitria Technology Inc. and webMethods Inc.

Most of these vendors say they are making their workflow applications, malleable primarily through the use of the Java 2 Platform Enterprise Edition (J2EE) object-based architecture developed by Sun Microsystems Inc. A software object might represent a field in an order-entry form or a process or a combination of processes. In varying measures, object architectures enable nontechnical service provider staff to create automated transactions via Tinkertoy-like assembly of objects on a graphical screen, allowing a closer match to each carrier’s unique workflow methods.

“The service provider can name a service plan, define the description the customer will see, associate the service with specific equipment, features, service levels and establish plans, features and pricing bundles for various markets,” TeleGea’s Amos says. As a result, the service provider can create a catalog and ordering portal that includes bundling of associated services by the customer himself.

The same powers can be made available to channel partners. “We’ve done a lot of work enabling the service provider to make Emporium available to its resellers and agents and they, in turn, to their customers,” says TeleGea marketing vice president Kevin Martini. “It can be co-branded or private labeled. The reseller, in the process of creating bundles, can expose the brand of each service. Resellers have been something of a stepchild in this industry, and that needn’t be the case.” 


Office Links

Alopa Networks Inc.

Aplion Networks Inc.

Axiom Systems Ltd.

Capsule Communications Inc.

Connexn Technologies

Covista Inc.

Dell Computer Corp.

DSET Corp.

IBM Corp.

ISPsoft Inc.

Microsoft Corp.

Netcracker Technology Inc.

Open Telecommunications North
America Inc.

Orchestream Ltd.

Quallaby Corp.

Talk America Inc.

TeleGea Inc.

Telution Inc.

Vitria Technology Inc.

webMethods Inc.


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